An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States by Charles A. Beard. New York: The Free Press, 1986. liii + 325pp. $26.02 paper. Review by Frederick Widdowson, 4/27/11.
Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States:
A Thought Provoking History
I first became aware of Beard when I was studying the background of World War Two. I chanced upon Beard while reading Harry Elmer Barnes’ Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and I became an avid student of what Beard called Revisionist History . Almost immediately I became entranced by his meticulous handling of the buildup to World War Two and the amazing scholarship and thoroughness he displayed. I became a fan of his writing and his thoroughness. In Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States he makes the controversial argument that the creators and proponents of our vaunted U.S. Constitution may have had an additional or overriding motivation in the creation of the document in that they had certain financial interests that required a strong national government in order to be reinforced and protected. I personally think he achieved just what he set out to do; raise the question that perhaps more than ideology and political philosophy were at play in the writing and ratification of our Constitution.
Beard uses the distribution of property holdings among those for and against the Constitution to suggest economic factors in supporting or rejecting it. He, very thoroughly, argues that people who lent money, merchants, holders of public securities, and holders of other personal property were instrumental in pushing the Constitution through. Those against the Constitution had an interest in farming, the agrarian lifestyle, were in debt, and favored paper money. As Beard presents the financial interests of delegate after delegate to the Constitutional Convention he asks the question, did these delegates break down into specific interest groups with money factors as the lynchpin around which they revolved or were they just working under abstract principles of political philosophy? His conclusion is that the Constitution was formulated and pushed through by people whose economic interests had been negatively affected by the weak national government under the Articles of Confederation.
Now, first, let me say that the critic of Beard’s thesis, such as the eminent legal scholar, Russell Kirk, in his Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution falsely maligns Beard when he implies that Beard is impugning the character of our founders by accusing them of avarice. The problem with this and one of the strengths of the book itself is that Beard says clearly in his introduction on page xiiv that “I called my volume “an economic interpretation of the constitution.” I did not call it “the” economic interpretation, or “the only” interpretation possible to thought. Nor did I pretend that it was “the history” of the formation and adoption of the Constitution.” Beard going down the list, name by name, provides evidence that may put forward reasoning that justifies his conclusion that there was adequate incentive financially to include personal financial interest as part of the reasoning behind the Constitution. He never attacks, mocks, or insinuates against the leadership that created the basic document of law in our country. The book’s primary strength is its thoroughness and its citation in footnotes of his copious sources.
The book’s weaknesses, other than the lack of a bibliography, forcing you to list the footnotes on a separate paper to run down, include a few small errors of fact which may be matters of interpretation, and the lack of an explanation within the book itself that he is simply providing an additional explanation for a very complicated document, and I am including the arguments for and against the Constitution when I say complicated. In addition, he brings in other statements by the founders with which he intends to buttress his case, such as Hamilton’s view of the army and navy as economic instruments designed to protect trade and commerce from Federalist no. 12, which really don’t seem like they have a bearing on his thesis (171). If he had made more of an emphasis on his purpose and less of an attempt to undergird his argument with implications that don’t seem to appear to be supportable, such as the Constitution wasn’t instituted because state governments were too weak, which is what I was taught, but that they were too strong in supporting debtors’ interests (179) then I think he would have been more successful. I think Beard’s biggest weakness in the book is a lack of clarity about the meaning of the book. His statement on page 188, “It was an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake; and as such it appealed directly and unerringly to identical interests in the country at large,” flies in the face of the disclaimer in his introduction and although after reading the entire book I understand his point, it surely gives critics much ground for attack. However, I see a certain cynicism and disregard for a concern about expressing opinions that I gathered from Breisach’s explanation of Progressive Historians and Beard specifically as having abandoned the concept of objectivity in his essay entitled That Noble Dream.
In conclusion, I think this book makes a very good case, but a very specific and limited case, for the Constitution having had some economic motives behind it in addition to the motives of an idealistic political science. I think it errs when Professor Beard tries to apply modern 20th century concepts, as Progressives do, of property and wealth which had undergone extreme changes in the 1800’s, to the 1700’s. As Forrest McDonald points out in his part of the introduction to this edition of Beard’s book on page ix, one of the great plusses of this effort has been to open up dry political history to new avenues of thought. Even if Beard is just plain wrong and that economic motives were not involved in the shaping of the Constitution (and anyone who has lived long enough in business and politics would find that hard to believe even though modern historians seem to have rejected Beard’s hypothesis) he has created a situation where it is no longer acceptable to simply recite the history of famous men and their ideas, but it is important to look at other possibilities, including distasteful and controversial ones, for our understanding of the workings of the “great men” of our past.